Paris is a city unabashedly obsessed with beauty. Without a doubt, the three most essential things to do when visiting the City of Light are to see beautiful things, eat beautiful things, and yes, buy beautiful things. And while Americans may initially be perturbed by Parisian prices (not to mention the ghastly exchange rate), deals and steals abound in the French capital. You only need to know where (and when!) to look.
Parisian Flea Markets
Paris is famous for its marchés aux puces, or flea markets. While the markets are best known for their selection of rare antiques and eccentric collectibles, shoppers go to les puces for deals on everything from cutlery to touristy scarves to leather jackets. Serious shoppers should come early and be prepared to barter.
Marché aux Puces St-Ouen de Clignancourt
Don’t be intimidated by the long metro ride or the maze of vendors; “the world’s largest flea market” is well-worth the schlep, both for the seriously discounted merchandise and the unique atmosphere. Take metro line 4 to the end (Porte de Clignancourt) and head north to the Rue des Rosiers. The market is open Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Come on Monday morning to avoid the crowds and get the best deals.
Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves
Open on Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine, the Vanves flea market advertises itself as central Paris’ only “secondhand and antiquarian market,” flaunting an astonishing array of gramophones, 70s-era furniture,18th century paintings, African jewellery and much more. Come early and be intrepid, however, because the best deals often go to professional buyers.
Each year France organizes two massive, well-organized, six week sale periods, or soldes. The winter sale lasts roughly from early January to mid February, and the summer sale from mid July to late August. The most significant discounts can be found at Paris’ large department stores – Le Bon Marché, Printemps, and the Galeries Lafayette – but don’t overlook smaller stores and boutiques, which are forced to clear out their stock to make way for next season’s merchandise. As an added bonus, Paris is considerably less crowded in January (when the holiday season is over and the cold deters tourists) and August (when a significant majority of Parisians have fled to the countryside).
Paris Department Stores Versus Specialty Stores
Be prepared to pay full price at glamorous department stores such as Printemps and Le Bon Marché, as well as many of the luscious boutiques in the Marais and the Latin Quarter. The exception, of course, is during les soldes, when these same stores put on the largest sales in Paris.
It goes without saying that you should never shop for American or even international brand names in Paris – this is not the place to buy the latest Nike gear (unless of course you absolutely need a French soccer jersey). Look, don’t touch on the Champs Elysées (once again, unless you came to Paris to buy Louis Vitton). Do, however, buy French brands and French specialties – some things, like great wine, are far, far cheaper in France.
In Paris, as elsewhere, not all supermarkets are created equal. Monoprix has by far the best selection and quality for fresh products, but their prices are significantly higher. Ed and Leader Price, on the other hand, offer rock-bottom prices (for Paris, that is), and are good places to go to stock up on staples, but avoid buying anything fancy or fresh. Champion, Casino, Carrefour Market, and Franprix fall somewhere in between, (although Franprix has decidedly higher prices and lower selection than the other three, it has the rare added bonus of being open on Sundays).
Small épiceries or convenience marts are ubiquitous and open late. Be prepared, however, to pay for the extended hours and close proximity; prices on things like pasta, cheese and alcohol can be nearly twice as high.
Don’t confuse these small grocery stores with the specialty food stores and so dear to the French culinary tradition: la boucherie, la boulangerie, le caviste, etc. These small stores or markets are not necessarily more expensive than supermarkets – prices vary widely by neighborhood and vendor – but they are almost always better. In addition, individual merchants provide the personal touch and professional pride that can’t be found at Franprix.
When it comes to cheaply furnishing your apartment or finding English language books, anglophone classified sites such as the Paris Craigslist are indispensable. These web pages are filled with ads for moving sales where you can find anything that won’t fit in a suitcase, usually for almost nothing: toasters, wardrobes, extra clothes, electronic equipment etc. Be ready to pick up and transport the object yourself and pay in cash.